Sectarian ‘Teen Ranch’ Has No Right To Tax Funding, Court Rules

An evangelical group in Michigan that runs a ranch for troubled young people has no right to demand tax funding of its program, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The legal fracas centers on a facility called Teen Ranch, which had been one of 35 “faith-based” groups contracting with Michigan’s Family Independence Agency (FIA) to provide services to abused, neglected and delinquent children who have been placed in state care via the courts.

FIA officials began awarding Teen Ranch state support in 1996. But a 2003 review of the facility’s activities led to reconsideration. State officials were concerned because Teen Ranch’s mission statement declares that it works to provide “hope to young people and families through life changing relationships and experiences from a Christian perspective.”

After a thorough review of all the private groups FIA contracts with, state officials determined that Teen Ranch had been coercing children to participate in religious activities, which included prayer before meals, weekly devotional gatherings and church attendance.

Officials at Teen Ranch refused to stop pressuring youth to join religious activities, and the Michigan agency severed ties with the group. Teen Ranch then accepted representation from a well-heeled Religious Right legal outfit, the Alliance Defense Fund, and in 2004 sued the agency.

In court, Teen Ranch officials claimed the state had violated the group’s constitutional rights, including the right to freely exercise its religious beliefs.

In 2005, U.S. District Judge Robert Holmes Bell ruled against Teen Ranch, saying none of its constitutional rights had been trampled by the Michigan agency and that, in fact, the agency was justified in cutting ties with the group.

The Alliance Defense Fund appealed. But in early January, a three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously agreed with what it called the district court’s “well-considered opinion.”

The panel concluded that despite the claims of Teen Ranch and the Alliance Defense Fund, the state of Michigan is under no obligation to support religious groups with tax dollars. Moreover, the appeals court ruled in Teen Ranch v. Udow that the Michigan agency would violate state law and the First Amendment principle of church-state separation if it did not cease its support of Teen Ranch.

Both courts noted that the youths were ultimately the responsibility of the state of Michigan and that the youngsters had no independent choice in determining the residential programs where they were placed.

The court pointed out that the Michigan agency provided Teen Ranch numerous opportunities to bring its residential programs into compliance with state and federal law, but the group remained obstinate.

At one point, Teen Ranch issued a statement declaring that, “incorporating religious teachings into on-going daily activities of youth and their treatment plans touches at the core of why we were founded, why we are here today, and why we will continue to include such programming for children in our care.”